Monthly Archives: March 2009

The old vs. the new

Back in the olden days of the last century when I was an undergraduate the lecturing process was very specific. 

  • The lecturer talked.
  • The students listened, processed, and wrote down as much of it as they could.
  • The lecturer departed.

There were smaller group tutorials where students had the opportunity to discuss and interact with the lecturer and each other.

Where in these two formats did the learning actually take place?

Now that I’m on the other side of the desk, I find that the lecturing process is not much different. However, being on the other side of the desk, literally facing the students I see a different perspective.

Take the large group lecture format, for example. The larger the group of students, the more variety there is in student attention spans, cognitive ability, English language ability, general behaviour, motivation and interest. The larger the group the harder it is to cater for such variety. Here’s a typical scenario – lecturer is explaining a concept –

  • A group of students in corner A pick up the meaning very quickly and understand the concept
  • A group of students in corner B have absolutely no idea of what has been said and are looking blankly at the lecturer
  • A group of students in corner C are having linguistic difficulties and have turned to the student in front of / beside / behind them to ask for a translation in their native language. They now have disturbed all students in that zone.
  • A group of students in corner D have ‘kind of’ understood the concept but  really need it explained again to be sure

What does the lecturer do – re-explain the concept. Result –

  • Students in corner A are quickly bored and begin talking among themselves
  • Students in corner B still haven’t understood the concept
  • Students in corner C are still typically linguistically challenged to some extent, even if the lecturer’s re-explanation is slow in delivery and cuts the jargon
  • Students in corner D now likely understand the concept

What does the lecturer do – move on, not re-explaining the concept. Result –

  • Students in corner A remain tuned in, following the lecture
  • Students in corner B still haven’t understood the concept
  • Students in corner C still haven’t understood the concept
  • Students in corner D still likely haven’t understood the concept

Agreed, the above is generalised and simplified but it begs the question. What’s the point of the traditional lecture? Would the students not be better off with a video recording of the lecturer giving the class? They can re-play it again and again as and when they want. Possible result – students in all corners understand the concepts being presented.

This is something that I discuss on a regular basis with both students and fellow colleagues. All are agreed that the videoed lecture would facilitate students being able to pace themselves. Modern technology means the process should be relatively easy to do. However, most are agreed that the discipline of physically coming to class carries a lot of weight. If students could delay attending their lecture, very allowable in the video version, would they do so indefinitely?

Whoever said lecturing is easy?


Are you smarter than a 10-year old?

I’m a big fan of the Sky quizshow “Are you smarter than a 10 year old“. I’m more than impressed with the confidence and knowledge on show from the 10-year olds in the class. But what I really am enthralled by is the variety and depth of subject domains that 10-year-olds in the UK study on their national curriculum.  I’ve seen numerous versions of the show, and I have to say “I am not smarter than a 10-year-old”.

But now, alas, alas, it’s all changing.

The latest suggest the primary school curriculum in the UK should do away with the emphasis on historical, geographical and ….. other factual type subjects and replace them with more practical and everyday skills like twitter and wikipedia, typing, blogging etc.

I’m a big fan of such web 2.0 tools and applaud attempts to incorporate them into the education curriculum. But such incorporation at the exclusion of important subject knowledge areas like the Victorian period or the Second World War is worrying.

However, as I have mentioned in here previously – at least the Uk are actively trying to get more IT skills and subject matter into their schools. When will Ireland learn the importance of this matter?

Celebrating women in science and computing

I have blogged previously about the lack of female role models  in technology and science. Yes, it’s a male-dominated field but there have been and continue to be some notable female contributions to the field over the years.

Thanks to Karlin Lillington for the nod, you can now read all about them in “lab coats and lace“, a celebration of inspirational Irish women scientists and pioneers over the years.  Karlin’s description of  Kay McNulty has me sold. I’m booking my copy of the book as soon as I’ve hit ‘publish’ on this screen.

While we’re talking about female role models in computing and technology I need to mention that today is ‘Ada Lovelace’ day. Ada was known as Charles Babbage’s “Enchantress of Numbers” and apparently had more vision for Babbage’s machine (the mid-1800’s precursor to the modern computer) than did Babbage himself.

To celebrate Ada’s day, I’m off over to Ada’s page to show my support.

More on twits and tweets and their uses

I’m feeling a tad guilty for not being a more active twit. I’m not entirely sure why I’m feeling this way. I’m equally not sure who or what is making me feel this way. To figure out the answers to those questions I’ve been looking at some uses twitter is being put to, and what might be good / bad / indifferent about them.

Here’s one that caught my eye about live tweeting by doctors performing a live surgery.  How is this any different than the more common practice of videoing the procedure and then placing it somewhere (online?) accessible to the med students, potential med students, etc, etc, who might be interested?  Answer – the fact that it is live.  What does that add – a buzz factor, a sense of immediacy.  Are either of those needed?

In my humble opinion, medical procedures are too personal and too serious for something as casual and trivial as a buzz factor. Even the most common and apparently straight-forward of operations can go wrong.  This is a human being that is being operated on. Does the world need to know all the details that should be the preserve of that patient and their immediate nearest-and-dearest. The same thinking applies to the immediacy factor. A live commentary might cut down on the worry for the loved ones of the person being operated on, but why might anyone else be in a rush to know about the fate of the patient.

It seems to me that the twitterbug is the latest in an evolution of social networking tools. There are now a lot of these tools available and those that take off typicallyvhave something unique to offer.  For twitter it is the sense of short bursts of real-time here-and-now. It’s being used in a variety of scenarios. The hospital one quoted above I don’t agree with (but thats just me, perhaps otherw would disagree). Immediate on-the-ground reactions to a plane crash before the ‘official’ press can literally get to the scene is a much better use.

But who am I to say what should be used for what. For me, the most interesting thing about such web 2.0 tools is that many of them are out there in the public domain and so its up to the public what use they use them for. Sitting back and seeing what people make of them is a social experiment in its own right.

Terms of endearment

Time was to call someone a twit was a grave insult indeed. Some examples –

But life changes. Now, to be referred to as a twit is most flattering indeed. It indicates that you are a member of Twitter – a social networking / micro blogging service that enables members to ‘tweet’ i.e. send and read short message updates from each other.

So, are you a twit?

John Collins in yesterdays Irish Times suggests that tweeting has moved into mainstream.  I’m not so sure. I’ve got a twitter account but very few of my friends / acquaintances tweet. The alternative is to start ‘following’ new people. The problem with that is simple lack of time.My loss!

Yet, I can see the advantage of live tweeting providing live commentary about a particular event as it’s unfolding.  Apparently, the Israeli government have done a live q & a using twitter. Much of the recent Mumbai bombings were gathered through tweets from people on the ground. Politicians and celebrities seem to be effective twits. But do I care if @jane is heading off to the hairdressers for an hour?  It’s just too micro. Ok, if I was supposed to be meeting Jane and she was held up at the hairdressers…….. On the other hand, she could just send me a quick text.  Yes, I’m aware that this type of thinking could have branded with the original definition of ‘twit’ by modern twitters everywhere.

Apparently, the commercial organisation behind twitter has yet to make a profit, despite having an approximate 6 million members. The twitter management team seem content to let its community of users dictate where the service and the technology should go. From a business perspective that is particularly interesting and I for one am curious as to how it unfolds. The technology is not much more than 2 years old and already has numerous spinoffs. An interesting one (that’s free!) for those interested in internet marketing, allows organisations to monitor what their customers are saying about them.  Can twitter feasibly continue to evolve like this?  Will the big guns (i.e. Google!) not be interested in a buy-out at some point in the near future?

Whatever happens, one thing is sure. To be labelled a twit has changed all meaning. Next time, someone talks about tweeting, just remember that they might not be referring to our feathered friends and the coming of spring.

We are fond of our texting in this country

Comreg’s latest publication tells us we, in Ireland, are very fond of texting. Here are the stats –

  • We sent 2.8bn text messages in the last quarter of 2008.
  • An average of 174 texts were sent from every phone in the country, every month, from October to December of 2008.
  • The overall number of text messages has gone up by 70% since 2006

Ah, the humble text message – where would we be without it?

No, I’m being serious here. Recently, I got hit with a particularly virulent bout of flu accompanied by laryngitis (a rarity for me). The only way to get over the later is to shut up – literally! Text messaging saved my sanity. I made a serious contribution to the texting volumes while avoiding becoming a total hermit and saving my voice in the process. The mobile screen doesn’t hurt flu-strained eyes either.

I managed to keep it in check and not text-spam anyone. I also avoided sleep-texting. The later is a relatively new phenomenon. Apparently, stories are emerging of people who text in their sleep. They wake up the next morning with no recollection of having sent the texts. Sounds bizarre! Apparently, it’s got a simple explanation. If we woken up for less than 3 minutes or so and then fall back asleep, we could very easily have no recollection of the period spent awake. Even it only takes a minute to send a text it still seems strange to me that I wouldn’t remember sending it.

Celebrity endorsements….

… are usually cringe-inducing. Think Andie McDowell telling you about cream to make your skin look younger, a whole range of sports personalities telling you that Nike are the biz, James Bond sporting a designer wristwatch, perfect-skinned actresses and models telling you on behalf of L’oreal that you’re worth it, etc, etc.

A possible reason is the lack of authenticity. I’m not a hairdresser and I struggle to do the vanity thing. Result, all the L’oreal in the world isn’t going to turn my hair into that of a Desperate Housewife (or equivalent).

But every now and again, a celebrity endorsement comes along that the celebrity isn’t paid a penny for. They are barely aware of their endorsement. They are doing what comes naturally, using products because they want to  and because those products are useful to them in aome way.

A perfect example is Stephen Fry’s use of the more social of web 2.0 social technology. Read all about it here. The interview is informative and worth a read. Here are a few insights that struck me –

  • He tweets because he wants to. He has 103,000 followers. On the one hand this makes him one of the worlds more popular twits (have I got the lingo correct?). But on the other hand, the personal touch is lost. How can he keep in touch with everyone.  What depth of communication is taking place. Or have I got it all wrong? I should be taking it for what it is – a micro low level of conversation but yet allows much to be said between participants.
  • Journalists don’t have as powerful a role any more. Celebrities can get in more direct contact with their fans and cut out the intermediary as it were.
  • To be truly real, the internet needs its red light district or equivalent. It has to have the good and bad and everything in between. Without them it is a poorer experience.
  • The absurdity of snobbishness gets a look in. E.g. if your email address is hotmail as opposed to a customised domain then you might not be taken so seriously. Yet, the “on the internet, no-one knows you’re a dog” idea comes into being. On line no-one knows if you are black or white, young or old, tall or short, male or female, etc.
  • Very interesting take on the disemvowelment of texting. Its nothing new. Back in the olden times when paper and ink were precious, abbreviations were common. Every part of that expensive page had to be used, and so ‘yours’ became ‘yrs’.
  • No-one is chucking their books in the bin just because they’ve invested in a computer. The 2 can exist side-by-side. Ok, I’m not so sure of this one. What about that electronic book reader that I keep talking about? Of course, the fact that I don’t have one (as yet) speaks volumes.
  • I love his idea of half-expecting to see wavy red and green lines under words mis-spelt in printed text. Sometimes, it’s a good idea to take the head out of the computer for a little while.
  • Time is truly moving on. The average web surfer now has more information and power at their fingertips than legions of kings and queens in previous centuries. Of course, what we do with and how we use this easily obtained wealth of information is another questions altogether.
  • The web and its treasure-trove of information can be archived for the enjoyment of future generations.

Stephen Fry – what a guy. Much more than an actor and a quiz-show host.

The latest Alan Turing heroine.

Though my computing classes tend more towards the non-techie end of business technology, I’ve always found that any optional courses I run are always male dominated. By and large, females just don’t think that technology is for them. It has a nerdiness that they find difficult to relate to.

A possible contributing problem is the lack of female role models in computing for girls to look up to.  A notable exception is Barbara Liskov. Back in 1968 she was the first female in the USA to obtain a phd in computer science. In a field that is still dominated by men, one can only imagine the obstacles faced by a woman in the field 30 years ago.

Now, she’s in the world news again. This time she has won the prestigous Turing Award. The award is not to be sneezed at coming with a prize of €250,000. Money apart, it’s considered to be the Nobel Prize of computing. Winners are a who’s who of the biggest names of the computing industry.

I’m not a technology expert and so won’t go into Barbara Liskov’s work. You can read all about it here.

We all know that high technology skills are in short supply, even in these recessionary times. We simply need more talented graduates. There are now more females than males in our universities but not in science and technology domains where girls are still reluctant to get involved. If school girls can see women enjoying and doing well in what has traditionally been a male area then perhaps the position can be reversed.

Female role models in computing are far and few between but we hope that the achievements of Barbara Liskov will be an inspiration and cause a change of mind about working in technology.

An example of the Wiki way

Isn’t the internet just great. It really is a power-to-the-people tool that allows Joe Soap to get a word in edgeways.

The so-called web 2.0 tools are easy to use and often free meaning that anyone with a laptop and a web connection can partake, and partake we do. A side-effect is that big corporate institutions don’t hold as much sway as they used to. Now we en-masse have the tools to say ‘hang on a minute…’.

A number of years when I was first introduced to Wikis, I thought they were a great idea in theory but too clumsy and awkward to use to take off. That’s certainly not the case anymore. Here’s an example…

At the end of January, the UK Gov published “Digital Britain“, a plan of how they are going to ensure that the UK is a big player in the global digital economy.  Fair enough.

However many people weren’t so keen on it and figured they could do a better job themselves. In the offline world this would have required an investment of time devoted to sheer logistics and phone calls as well as the putting together of their actual report. But a Wiki allows them to do it much more easily and effectively. Their work in progress can be found here.

Not being a Brit I wouldn’t feel right doing a compare and contrast. I just want to say that this is a really great example of what Wikis can be used for as well as allowing citizens a say in Digital Britain. Curious that there is a Gov-run forum inviting any interested and individuals to discuss the issues relating to Digital Britain. I wonder how many of the Wiki people joined in.

Are you in or out?

The classic advertising problem that all students learn in ‘advertising 101’ is as follows – the marketer knows that half of her advertising budget is wasted but doesn’t know which half.

We know that advertising works but we cant be precise in how we measure it. Television suffers from the ‘put the kettle on’ effect, i.e. the television happily broadcasts the ads but the watcher might be in the kitchen making coffee and not taking in the adverts. Billboards have to compete with busy roads for drivers attention. Newspaper adverts can be zoned out of the readers vision. All in all, its impossible to know who and how many people exactly are consuming the advert.

Then along came the Internet. With every online step we take we are leaving behind personal information about ourselves.  Should we hold advertisers to task over this? There’s a loaded question. Privacy advocates suggest a big ‘no’; marketing people cannot just help themselves to any information that comes around about Joe Soap. On the other hand, if Joe Soap uses free software should he not give something back to the web?

I use gmail. Every incoming email is accompanied by targeted ads. An email from my supervisor about my research brings ads for education courses and the like. An email from a North American friends telling me her garden is starting to bloom now that the snow is starting to melt brings ads for gardening products. Should I be worried?  Sometimes the ads are not so well targeted. An email telling me of an upcoming  ‘multiples intelligences’ seminar (which I can’t attend, incidentally, as it clashes with my teaching classes) brings an ad for testing impurities in honey!

Apparently, I should be worried. Phorm raised its head last year among a wave of privacy concerns. Now, it’s in the news again. A new set of online advertising guidelines from the IAB has just been released and has been endorsed by many of the big online web organisations (Google, Yahoo, AOL and Phorm themselves).

The essence is that users have to be informed that their information is being used to feed them precisely targeted adverts. They must be told exactly how the system works. And they must be informed that they have the option to opt out of this if they don’t want their information used in this way.

The last part is where the privacy experts are not happy. They suggest that the marketers should be proactive with consumers and allow consumers to actively opt-in if they want to be part of things. With the opt out option, all but the very savvy users will know what’s going on and most us us are unlikely to realise that our personal information is being used at all.

What’s the answer?

Should people abstain (!) from surfing the net if they don’t know where / how their information footprints they leave behind are going to be used? The answer – you may as well ask a fish to stop and check if the water it’s swimming in is clean – it’s just not going to happen.

Are the privacy advocates correct and marketers should approach Joe Soap with an opt-in form to sign his name to? How many people would likely say yes please, off you go and do what you like with my data?

Sometimes, there is no easy answer.